The Porous University Symposium; What We Say and What We Do by Gina Wall

This is a presentation given at the Porous University Symposium at the University of the Highlands and Islands – A critical exploration of openness, space and place in Higher Education.  The symposium took place on 8th and 9th May, 2017 at the An Lòchran, Inverness Campus. Gina Wall works at Glasgow School of Art and has responsibility for developments in learning and teaching alongside the leadership of the undergraduate programme in Fine Art.

Gina wall
Gina wall


Prior to this she led the curriculum in Fine Art at Moray School of Art, University of the Highlands and Islands. As well as having many years of teaching experience ranging from studio tutorials, practical workshops, lecture delivery, dissertation and PhD supervision she is also involved in a number of research networks:


Land2 (led by the University of Leeds), PLaCE International (led by the University of Dundee), Arctic Sustainable Art and Design Thematic Network of the University of the Arctic (led by Lapland University) and the AHRC funded Northern Peripheries Network (led by University of Northumbria). I a member of Between Places (led by UHI) and the Reading Landscapes research group (GSA).



This is a tale of two places; two higher education institutions both distributed though in radically different ways. The first a regional university consisting of a number of partner colleges – an institution differenced by geography making it a university that at times is tricky to locate which functions in a between space facilitated by technology; a generative matrix which I have dubbed a transversity.


The second, an art school named after its city, vibrant and diverse but with a strong, singular and carefully managed external identity. An art school which has migrated into China, Singapore and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.


Overlaid with this is the tale of a person caught between two very different institutional practices – caught between what is being said and what is now done. While working in a geographically distributed institution my thoughts on the leaky university emerged from pragmatism. Pragmatism in a sense of the need to find solutions to the pedagogical challenges associated with studio based learning via distance delivery.


Like bricoleurs we found the tools to do the job – the institutional social networking site, Blackboard 9, site visits, telephone tutorials, migrations of staff and students. I became interested in the notion that the university leaks into non institutional settings to places not normatively considered to be part of the university or art school.


That universitas embodied a certain plurality of space. I observed that the geographical spread of the leaky university problematised the organizational and faculty structures. There was a subtle but unintended challenge to the relation between power, knowledge and the fabric of the university. I believed that the walls of the university were porous, that there was a genuine institutional motility at play.


I thought that what we were doing challenged the normative structures of the institution and the hierarchies of learning. The university, and by extension, the studio wasn’t just a locus – a place – it expanded beyond its physical demarcations to the telephone, to interactive web technology, to video conference, to conversation.


Irit Rogoff ‘s words to describe the academy project – a project in which the spaces of learning and exhibiting are refracted through one another resonated with me. For Rogoff academy does not mean institution but a series of processes and speculations which are resistant to outcome driven education and it’s attendant marketisation.


Thinking through academy as process and speculation enabled me to consider the institution as action and interaction – the dispersed university as a way of doing – studio as a series of interlocutions and interventions rather than simply a place to study and make.


In the period between then and now, something happened to me. The leaky university traversing the highlands and islands became a place of the past and the art school in the city of Glasgow became a place of the future. I forced myself to ask the question – just how leaky is the art school in the city ? How is leaky, or porous characterised in this place ? What can leaky mean here ? How should I think of the geographical migrations of the art school ?


A certain paralysis of thought settled like ash. It became hard to know what to think. I began to wonder if we do in fact, collectively produce art institutions or are we merely the products of them ? Was I turning into what I spot Neil Mulholland calls in his provocation, a ‘Fascidiot’ ?


The installation of a fairly new security system at Glasgow School of Art seen in the slide has become laden with political significance. Coming from elsewhere where the dialogue about security had been moving slowly, it seemed to me that these barriers had come to act as a powerful motif of the problems in higher education today.


Gina Wall Slide


Rightly or wrongly these security systems have come to stand for the development of the commercialised institution with a carefully managed public face often at odds with its own ethos and character – the marketisation of education; socioeconomic segregation; high levels of educational selectivity; lack of public accessibility and unequal representation within the institution.


For me personally the barriers became a powerful visualisation of the futility of the leaky university. The paralysis which seized my mind grew from a sense of defeat – a nagging doubt that perhaps it is hopeless to continue to believe in the productive porosity of universities and art schools. Is it too much for us to ask that our institutions are accessible and open ? Perhaps it is too late to consider that there might be other ways of structuring our activities and undermining the hierarchies at play in our institutions ?


Is it too much to ask that we might reflect carefully on the architectonics of power that say so much about who we seem to collectively think we are. It was only by once again reading with Rogoff that I began to shake the panic induced paralysis. If you focus on the door ajar slightly, to the right on my slide.


I re-read Rogoff’s ‘Academy as Potentiality’ and was reminded about one of its key precepts. She writes: “In thinking academy through potentiality, academy becomes the site of a duality when understanding of ‘I can’ as always already yolked to an eternal ‘I cant’.


Potentiality is a duality which for Rogoff is inescapable but not paralysing. I can choose to act, but then again, I can choose not to. She goes on to say – if educating is forever reacting to the woes of the world, we hope to posit that education is and of the world, not a response to crisis, but part of its ongoing complexity. Not reacting to realities, but producing them.


I find myself at a kind of crossroads. What is at stake if one does not act on the potentiality of academy ? What if I choose I cant ? How do we, in Rogoff’s words, inhabit these problems of higher education differently ? What we say is important, but if art school is action and interaction, it is what we do that matters…


Academy as Potentiality Irit Rogoff
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